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Wednesday, 19 October 2016

Post-Modern History: A critique (for students) of Keith Jenkins’ Re-Thinking History

(Non) Credo
I do not believe that the point of history is to seek the ‘truth’, at least as usually conceived.  Nor do I think that historical research is capable of recovering such a thing even if it were its purpose.  As I have said repeatedly on this blog, the purpose of history (as opposed to chronicling and antiquarianism) goes far beyond the establishment of things that did or did not happen (politically useful though those limited objectives might sometimes be), which nevertheless remain the (not always easily-established) base upon which the practice of History itself takes place.  As I think I have said before, the base of much physics is mathematics, but that does not mean that theoretical physics reduces to maths.

The 1990s saw a number of debates about the nature of Truth, sometimes referred to collectively as ‘The Truth Wars’.  One of the less intellectually-improving skirmishes around the edge of this cultural moment concerned ‘postmodern history’, specifically the publication of Re-Thinking History by Keith Jenkins, and various responses to it. This book occasioned a flurry of books by Jenkins and his acolytes (most notably Jenkins’ side-kick Alun Munslow, who must rank as the most un-self-conscious sycophant in the recent, or possibly the entire, history of the discipline) and a journal of Re-Thinking History.

One of the reasons why this book continues to have its doleful influence is that most of the responses to it were very weak, especially Richard Evans’ In Defence of History.  Evans sought to defend history from an ‘onslaught’ of postmodernist critiques, although it is very strongly suggested by the book’s argument and footnotes that Evans had read, first-hand, hardly any at all of the works of hardly any at all (beyond some Foucault) of the philosophers whom he bracketed as being at the root of this onslaught, much less understood them.  Indeed, there are some reasons to suppose he had not read some of the ‘postmodern’ critical articles that he did cite (at least in their entirety).  You might ponder that that was a pretty serious (and ironic) flaw in a book trumpeting the virtues of empirical research amongst the documents, but there we are. 

Be all that as it may, one argument (amongst other ad hominem critiques) was to attack Jenkins for not being ‘a proper historian’.  There are, to be sure, points where some better-founded knowledge – not necessarily first-hand experience – of how historians go about their research would have saved Jenkins from some misunderstandings. But whether or not Jenkins is an historian, a ‘working historian’, a ‘proper historian’ or whatever, misses the point.  Do you need to be a painter to theorise about aesthetics?  Do you need to be a practising scientist to think about the philosophy of science?  If the issue is epistemology, the status of historians’ truth-claims, of course you don’t need to be someone who actually researches and publishes about the past.  Jenkins took his stand as a philosopher of history, not as an historian.

Another response to Jenkins was the glib one often thrown at ‘postmodernists’, that goes: ‘aha: you say that all arguments are positioned and their authority only relative, so your argument must be, too!’  To which I assume that Jenkins would reply ‘Erm, well, yes.  That is kind of the point.’ [Although it would be somewhat undermined by his later claims to have ‘won’ the debate.]  The argument that there is no single objective truth is not some version of the Cretan (or Epimenides’] Paradox which is rendered false by being true or vice versa: e.g. ‘all statements are lies’.

Critiques which started (or derived authority) from the position of being ‘a working historian’, saying – in effect – that is not how we do it would find it difficult to really land an effective blow as, rightly or wrongly, they could themselves be dismissed as positioned, self-interested defences of the status quo.

Thus attacks on the book from without – that is to say critiques of the degree of fit between its arguments and the external object of the practice of history – tended to be deflected and were indecisive.  We can more effectively critique it from within, by studying its own arguments.  Such a critique will reveal that it is a patchwork of straw men, category errors, muddle and self-contradictions that actually collapses from the inside.  Furthermore, its author seems not even to have understood the ideas of the authorities he uses as the basis of his argument.  In short, the weaknesses of Re-Thinking History lie not in its author not being ‘a proper (or ‘working’) historian’ or in it, as a book, supposedly not being good history but in the fact that it is a shockingly bad piece of philosophy.  And I say that – let’s be clear – without (unlike Jenkins) claiming to be any sort of trained or qualified philosopher.

There are valid points of critique within the book.  Historians are very often un-self-conscious about what they do.  And it is true that a lot of history goes on being entirely unreflexive about what it does or why.  I would say (I’ve said it before) that the discipline is complacent, and that it has no clear idea of what it is there for.  Books published in 2009 still claim that history is about a verifiable search for truth, and so on.  These are all areas where History does need to be called out.  In this sense Re-Thinking History and the similarly weak books that poured forth in its wake have had a negative effect.  It remains on many historiography courses (like ours) but I suspect as a kind of straw man, almost as a false-flag operation by traditionalist positivist empiricists.  It is so bad that Evans (vel sim) can be deployed as riding to the rescue of beleaguered Klio with all his easy humour, bonhomie and good old common sense and all can go on as before.  Phew! Hurrah! Re-Thinking History can be deployed as a smoke-screen to mask rather better work (often pre-dating its publication) with better and more germane critiques of the discipline.  So here is my critique, from a position of someone who has tried to write self-reflexive history for over twenty years and who does believe that (more or less) plausible, (more or less) patchy and (always) incomplete re-descriptions of the past (as it impinged upon the people who produced its traces) are possible but who also thinks that that is not ultimately the purpose of history, who doesn’t think that ‘truth’ is (or can be) attainable and who believes that history, narratives and so on are present constructions which are not imposed by the past as it was lived.[1]  In other words, if anyone ought to have been at least vaguely sympathetic to Jenkins, it was me, but I’m not.

So the point in this piece is to provide a brief (roughly a page and a half) but fair summary of the text, which will save students having to read it, and a detailed critique that will provide them with the arguments they need to dismantle it on its own terms.  But, that critique is not one which will let traditional positive empiricism or current complacent historical practice off the hook.  If that looks like a rather naughty way of undermining everyone’s seminars on ‘postmodern history’,[2] that is because it is.  If we drop Re-thinking History and the drivel it inspired from our historiography courses we can forget the whole sorry episode (or at least look back with embarrassment, roll our eyes and ask 'wtf?') and clear the way for some more rigorous questioning of, and self-reflexivity about, the practice of history.  Students: read, use freely, and share widely!

The argument
First of all, though, a basic summary of the argument.  Within the constraints of space, I will strive to make this a fair account.

In Chapter 1 (What History Is: pp.6-32), J argues that History is not in itself The Past.  As a result, it cannot provide an objective account or recreation of the Past.  History is and can only be a discourse.  The historian’s view is conditioned by his/her time, social background, institutional position.  History is about stories, but the past comes down to us as stories (p.11) so there is no way of breaking out of a linguistic ‘bind’.  Language always supports multiple readings.  It is always the historian’s personal construct and the choices of topic, the kinds of evidence or the weight assigned to different pieces of evidence is governed by this.  History is given shape by the historian.  So history is something that is made at particular points in time and space and ‘imprisoned’ by that fact, rather than something that is, and is reachable, ‘out there’.   Consequently, all histories are logically equivalent and one cannot be chosen over another on the grounds of ‘correspondence’ with the objective truth of history.  ‘Everything is relative (historicist)’ (p.30).  The only way one history gains ground over another is through the operation of power.  Some discourses are dominant, others subordinate.  The truth claims of academic history stem only from universities’ position as the guardians of ideological control.  Consensus only occurs, says J, where dominant voices silence the others (p.23).  All accounts are relative and problematic (p.30).  J argues that this is empowering: history can be whatever you want.  But also, not being able to judge between histories on account of ‘correspondence’ is not entirely disabling: to understand different histories you have to analyse the power relations in which they are enmeshed.  You should ask not ‘what history is’ but ‘who history is for’.

Chapter 2 (On Some Questions and Some Answers: pp.33-69)
In this chapter J discusses a number of key issues in historical research, beginning with ‘truth’ (pp.34-39).  In this section he argues essentially that the desire for truth is a sort of basic psychological need and that we fear being cut off from this.  Using a discussion by Foucault of a passage from Borges about a Chinese encyclopaedia with strange categories,[3] he suggests that we abandon what we think of as objective categories and embrace uncertainty.  The connection between word and world is arbitrary he claims, using various thinkers including Derrida.  Truths are just ‘useful fictions’ (p.39).

Moving onto the issue of facts (pp.40-44), J says that Historians are concerned with more than discrete facts. They combine them into arguments and think that the resultant arguments/interpretations are true.  This is because they think that facts render arguments true/accurate.  He cites an article by Skidelsky claiming that interpretation only exists peripherally around a core of accepted factual knowledge.  J then points out that the ideas of ‘centres’ (like that factual core) cannot be seen as other than contingent, placed on a sliding spectrum.  J moves on to some fairly unremarkable comments on ‘bias’ (pp.44-47), concluding that because they see their centre position as objective, empiricists see bias as something only affecting others, although they cannot be unbiased themselves. 

On that basis J moves on to spend ten pages (pp.47-57) on empathy, in which he decries the attempt to try and think yourself into a past world in order to understand and explain.  Philosophers like Wittgenstein have discussed the problem of ‘other minds’ and how difficult it is to know how someone else feels, so how much more difficult must this be with other periods and places?  People in the past were different from us (p.56).  J argues that the attempt to think yourself into the past is an attempt to colonise the past with modern bourgeois, liberal, capitalist attitudes.   So, as with the attempt to portray an objective empiricist view as a neutral centre, this would seem to argue that empathy is an attempt to show certain modes of thought as transcendent and normal [at least that is how I understand the argument to go].

The discussion of sources (pp.57-53) develops the main thrust of the argument to claim that evidence is only used to support arguments, and so is not itself free from the discourse.  The past happened and it leaves traces which exist whether we look at/for them or not, but these traces only become evidence when used in a positioned way to support an argument. Citing Roland Barthes (pp.60-61), J states that what history is inevitably only a copy, in discourse, of something that exists in the ‘Real’ but which cannot be captured independently of discourse.

The section on causation essentially repeats the point made already that issues like causation etc. cannot be a fact, or ‘true’, and argues that one interpretation only wins out over another because of strategies of discourse of which academic historians are the guardians.  In the conclusion to the chapter (pp.66-69), J says he thinks that relativism and scepticism are a basis for social toleration, using a lengthy quote from Hayden White to support the point.

Chapter 3: (Doing History in a post-modern world: pp.70-84)
This chapter begins with J’s definition of post-modernism.  All the old gods, the old certainties, have turned out to have feet of clay, to be temporary fictions.  He moves on to give a lengthy (pp.72-75) [historical] account of how this happened.  The ‘dominant underlying presuppositions of ‘our times’’ are provided by scepticism, he says, and bolsters this with a discussion of Richard Rorty’s pragmatism.  The bonus, in J’s view, is that there are now myriad forms of history to be used or abused and only some ill-defined figures [presumably academics in old universities: it’s not clear] control the bounds of what is ‘proper history’.  Some ‘brilliant histories’ are marginalised because they are unpalatable to these people (p.79).  But new histories can still be found, that have been hidden away.  Our approach must be to deconstruct and historicise historical accounts. ‘Always historicise’, urges J (p.82).  So the purpose of history is to help us ‘understand the world we live in and the forms of history that have both helped to produce it and which it has produced’ (p.83).

A Critique
Let us assume, on the basis of its essential thesis, that the book’s claim to be taken seriously stands or falls on the basis of the coherence of its argument.  Critique based upon its degree of ‘fit’ with an external reality (‘how the practice of history is’) can be shrugged off according to the book’s points about either the ‘situated-ness’ of the critique or the vested power-interests of the critic (or MRDA[4]: ‘[you] would [say that] wouldn’t [you]’).  The ‘correctness’ or otherwise of the use of authorities is a similarly insecure point from which to critique the book, given the argument made (rightly or wrongly) about the infinite readings of text.  Any such criticisms have to be secondary.

A: Straw Men?
In some ways this is a minor point but it is worth asking yourself, as reader, how convinced you are about the reality of the ostensible target of Re-Thinking History.  How many actual historians are cited?  And how recent are they?  E.H. Carr and Geoffrey Elton are frequently cited: their books on what history is/was were twenty-four to twenty-seven years old when Re-Thinking History was published.  Arthur Marwick’s was twenty-one and Thompson’s The Poverty of Theory a mere whipper-snapper of a book at only thirteen years old.  A trawl through the footnotes provides very few traces of any engagement with (then) recent thinking by historians (say, less than ten years old in 1991).  Is J setting up a straw man to knock the stuffing out of just for his own self-aggrandizement as, one might suspect, might be the book’s own question turned on itself?  The point is that the book does not make the case very convincingly that it is engaging with a current topic/debate.[5] Maybe it does; maybe it doesn’t. The text itself leaves you with room for serious doubt.

B: Category errors
The next heading under which I want to group my critical points concerns areas where it is simply not clear what J is actually talking about, as the target of his critique seems to slide about between analytically different things, suggesting, at best, some pretty muddled thinking.

J is frequently unclear when it comes to discussing the related network of concepts, truth/fact/interpretation.  See pp.14-15, where J slides from a discussion of events to one of hypotheses and interpretation.  At the top of p.14 he argues that a historical account cannot be checked against the past but only against other accounts.  And yet later (p.40) he is happy enough that events – ‘discrete facts’ (how discrete if, as p.14, already enmeshed in discourse as ‘accounts’?) – exist.  Later still (p.60) he says that traces of the past exist whether or not we look at them (and so are, equally, fundamentally independent of modern constructs).  Thus Jenkins is happy to accept the independent existence of traces of the past and the possibility of establishing ‘discrete facts’ (which surely would be the basis of even the most traditional historical research), yet he seems to want us to believe that we cannot check a historian’s account against anything other than other historians’ accounts (p.14).[6]  He does this essentially by a sleight of hand that puts interpretation and hypothesis in a supposedly-claimed category of fact/truth.  Of course, interpretation, hypothesis and causation cannot lie in the realms of fact or of truth/falsehood.  But interpretation and hypothesis can be judged (not as true/false but as more or less plausible) according to their degree of fit with J’s own categories of ‘discrete fact’ and ‘trace’.  This is a more serious flaw than simply setting up a straw man.   All this relates to what ‘truth’ it might be that J is discussing.  Is it a ‘true picture’, i.e. this did or did not happen to these/those people in this/that order?  Or is it some sort of more transcendent order of truth? 

Here, J is not alone as this is a problem that bedevils discussions of historical truth.  It is this muddle that allows people to argue that so-called postmodernism in history permits, in and of itself, holocaust denial.  No philosopher of whom I am aware, amongst those grouped (usually wrongly) under the heading of postmodernist – and especially not Derrida – would deny that the holocaust happened, or that it and its details are empirically true and indeed verifiable via the sorts of procedures used by, e.g., Deborah Lipstadt or Richard Evans. But equally no historian would argue that there is a single true story of the holocaust.  And what is the truth of the holocaust beyond that (or beyond the obvious point that it was a very Bad Thing)?  That is the level of truth that most of those philosophers are dealing with if and when they say that truth is unreachable.

Essentially J’s argument is based upon his own assumption that interpretations can - ideally - be true.  His argument for the ‘logical’ (rarely has the word logical been used so frequently and with so little irony) relativism of history (contra, e.g. Geoffrey Elton) is essentially that ‘true’ explanations of the past cannot be reached.  Put another way, History = X; therefore, if X is impossible, History is also impossible.  But, if you don’t agree that History is X in the first place (because, say, you never thought that history was about [or capable of] establishing true/false distinctions in interpretation/hypothesis/causation), then the question of the possibility/impossibility of History remains open.  Ultimately, J’s argument is only possible because he has accepted (and shares) Elton’s ideal of what history is; they just differ on whether that ideal is attainable (though see below).  He bolsters his argument only with a quote by Robert Skidelsky in a piece in the TES, which raises a series of further questions. Essentially, what J comes close (on p.13) to realising but ultimately fails to grasp is that what he sees as history's impossibility is its very condition of possibility in the first place.

A similar and related problem arises in J’s discussion of the concepts evidence/source/trace.  Exactly what is he talking about when he discusses the material with which historians work?  Early in the book, he says that the evidence for the past comes always-already in the form of stories.  But is that always the case? He says that the past leaves traces (as we have seen) which can be left undiscovered.  If that is so, how (at least on the first occasion it is encountered and used) can such a trace come ready-made in a story?  The trace/evidence distinction (between traces of the past and evidence used in support of an argument) is well made but is only, to all intents and purposes, a slight reworking of Carr’s fact/evidence distinction from 1964.  But note how the subject of the discussion slides about between the categories of trace and evidence.  Sometimes, in other words, he is treating ‘traces’ as ‘evidence’ and vice versa.

C: Confusion
What kind of history?
Ask yourself what sort of history J thinks he is talking about in his critique.  Does he know?  I do not mean the difference between a right-wing imperialist, a socialist, a feminist or a postcolonial history of the same events (say the Great Bengal Famine of the 1940s), but the different thematic varieties of history.  It seems to me from the text that J is envisaging narrative political history alone as constituting the ‘history’ that he is putatively re-thinking.  But how would the same critiques apply to other types of history (intellectual history, say, or the history of mentalities, both of which relate to my meta-critique, E, below)?

Discourse, Power and Relativism
J seems to me to be pretty crucially muddled about discourse and the operation of power.  For now we must leave aside the issue of whether that is how things work in practice (for what it's worth, I think J’s view is so unidimensional as to be little more than caricature, but we can bracket that).  How well does the concept work within his argument? I am not sure.  J seems to want to believe that you can have any history you like (p.13) and that any historian’s historical work represents, and is dependent upon, personal constructs (pp.14-15).  All historical accounts are ‘imprisoned in time and space’ (p.19).  But he simultaneously wants history to be locked into a constructed discourse (p.11).  It is the discourse, formed over time, that makes you, qua historian, see and read the traces of the past in a specific way.  Discourses are always on the move (ibid).  But in that case it is pretty unclear what concept of discourse J is using (from the text it appears to be Foucault’s but we have to bracket whether or not that concept seems properly to be employed).  How does discourse structure history (and how is history a discourse) if history can be so individual that anyone can make of it what they want?  This would seem to make history not a discourse – a historically-contingent episteme, imprisoning the values and terms of discussion – so much as a discussion, structured around and between kaleidoscopic arrangements of situational, contingent, political alliances of particular individuals, each with their own separately-, individually-produced ideas of history. In that sort of formulation the ideas of discourse and ‘discursive formation’ are pretty much evacuated of any analytical value. What sort of analytically-meaningful discourse, in any case, (you might ask) is so fragile that one professor (J) can come along and say “hey, everyone, do your own thing! Break out of the discourse!”...?

[You might also wonder how this essentially free market consumer-choice model of what history can be – or the ‘liberation’ he sees as being represented by free market choice of histories – fits with J’s posturing about being on the Left and his critique of empathy on the basis that it supposedly normalises free market liberal capitalist thinking, but I digress.]

Related to this is J’s muddled thinking about the operation of power within historical debate. Generally, J sees this as the guardians of the dominant discourse (whatever that may be: see above), who he appears to think (pp.65-66) are ‘university historians’ (all of whom, for some reason, appear amazingly to have agreed on what history is and how it is to be done/used, even though it can be anything,[7] so that one quote from Skidelsky suffices to illustrate what university historians all think).  These people keep unpalatable or unconventional histories/historians in their place (p.23; p.79).  J, however, thinks that his relativism (which he bases on his claim that there are no value-free facts in history, which he later contradicts, as above) is ‘politically enabling’ as it allows millions of different histories to flourish, breaking out of the confines of this elitist domination.  This is where he can indeed be attacked for enabling far right-wing, pro-Nazi, holocaust-denying history. For how, within his model, does one tackle such history if all histories are equally ‘positioned’ and ‘logically’ epistemologically equal?  The only way within his argument (and this is where things get ironic) would be on the basis of de facto power-operations, where the guardians of the discourse, the professors (the Richard Evanses and Deborah Lipstadts) stamp down on the Nazis, not on the basis of greater and more sophisticated fit between interpretation and the traces of the past but by sole virtue of their greater academic/cultural capital.[8]  If J supports the political Left then he would have to welcome such an operation of power, which his whole book is supposed to be criticising and trying to counter…. The problem is that J’s type of relativism is in fact entirely politically disabling. It provides no basis at all on which to challenge dominant views.

D: Self-Contradiction
There are some serious points at which J contradicts himself.  One is in his discussion of empathy. As noted J wants to suggest that other minds cannot be entered into.  To be crude, the other minds argument in philosophy asks questions like ‘how do you know that the colour I call ‘red’ is the same as the colour you perceive as red?  Or, ‘if I stick my hand in some boiling water and scream, how do you know that I am feeling what you would think was pain?’ ‘If I see a crocodile and run away screaming, is it because I am experiencing what you would call fear?’ And so on. [It is an essentially unsurmountable issue that the whole ‘History of the Emotions’ fad conveniently agrees to ignore.] What J seems not to realise, though, is that you can’t somehow ring-fence that problem.  Once you have let it out of the bag, you have no more logical basis for stating that past minds were different from ‘ours’ than for saying that they were just like ours and are entirely reachable on the basis of the statements they left behind.  If you think past minds and ideas can’t be grasped then you simply can't know whether they were the same or different and so the argument that they can be grasped proceeds on the same basis as the belief that they can’t, in other words on the basis of faith alone.   What's more, the fact that Wittgenstein and co said you could not be sure that you know, is not a basis for saying (as does J) that you can’t know.

More to the point, once one gets to pp.52-53, we find J citing Collingwood and Steiner to support an argument that past cultures were different.  But on what basis can such a judgement be made (and its truth-claim be accepted), other than on the basis of the standard historical mode of enquiry and a degree of argument-source/trace fit that J is allegedly re-thinking?  On p.54, furthermore, J cites J.S. Mill and his idea of freedom.  Here, then, J feels sufficiently confident of having been able to get into Mill’s mind, via his texts, as to be able to redescribe what Mill thought about freedom, in spite of his belief (‘I think’, p.56) that past people were ‘very different from us in the meanings they gave their world’ (p.56).  At what point, one might ask J, does he think the past inhabited by ‘past people’ begins… Before John Stuart Mill, evidently. To restate my point, if you think that you can use Mill’s writings to redescribe his views of the world that impinged upon him, and identify differences from modern ideas, then you can logically do the same to find areas of similarity.

This applies to J’s general appeals to authority.  Throughout the book he appeals to other commentators on modern academic practice, sometimes historical, more often not, as furnishing a basis and support for his critique.  But here, quite apart from asking what authority these thinkers can carry according to the terms of his argument and thus why we have to take their views seriously (are they somehow less ‘positioned’ and imprisoned in language/discourse than historians?), we can also ask how he can tell from their writings that what they are talking about is what he understands them to be talking about.  This is where the ‘other minds’ problematic won’t go back into the bottle once you have let it out.  What basis does J have for understanding and agreeing with their account of the world other than a kind of recognition and empathy?  Why is Terry Eagleton’s mind more accessible to others, via his texts, than, say, a Roman centurion’s?  If the answer is that Eagleton and J inhabit the same general cultural milieu or (in Foucauldian terms) episteme then where does that cultural milieu begin and end?  And how can one know other than via an essentially historical enquiry?

[This, incidentally, is where it becomes more than a tad sticky to use Foucault, whose work (whatever you think of it) essentially took the form of historical enquiry predicated on the ability to be able to describe past modes of thought, ideas, techniques of the self, and so on, and changes therein, as a basis for an argument rejecting the possibility of doing any of those things.]      

E: The meta-critique: historicising history
And so we arrive at the most significant problem that besets Re-thinking History and which, more than anything else, tears it apart from within. As we have seen, J’s key argument is that all historical works are ideologically situated (fair enough).  They cannot be judged better or worse according to their fit with an external past reality (we have seen there are problems within his argument there but let us continue) so we can only arrive at the ultimate goal of the book – to understand the world through the histories it has produced – via the analysis of the power-relations involved in the production of different histories, at their various ideological[9] or discursive situations.  All being products of a time and place, his injunction, as we have seen, is ‘always historicise’ (p.82). And there: boom! The whole argument of the book implodes. For how does one go about historicising a text and its author, if not by precisely the sort of historical methodology he wants to reject? How does one situate a book’s author other than by finding out about him/her from the evidence of her/his texts or from other sources of information (the epistemological status of which is exactly the same as that of historical sources)?  How does one situate a historical author within a socio-economic structure other than through a fundamentally historical process of enquiry, by analysing sources of information and putting them together to make up some sort of general picture?  Is this any more possible for modern writers than for people writing in the tenth century?  Probably, but only because we have more data and the gaps in the picture or the story might be smaller or less problematic, but does anyone want to suggest that the picture thus presented of current society and power-structures is going to be any less problematic, any less ‘situated’, any less the product of our discursive formation than the picture we might put together of twelfth-century society, or than the pictures of their world put together by twelfth-century people?  Can my picture of the world in 2016 and how and why it works the way it does, and thus my argument about where Historian X’s writing ‘is coming from’ and why (my historicising of Historian X), be judged better or worse than anyone else’s on anything other than a degree of fit with the evidence produced by or about the world and Historian X? If it can't, then basically I cannot analyse the power structures or discourse producing/produced by Historian X and his/her works? And if I cannot do that (as logically J’s argument suggests I can’t) then I cannot obey his injunction always to historicise.  Or, alternatively, if I can do that, then there is no logical reason why I cannot do the same (albeit, to various degrees, to patchier effect) with, say Matthew Paris, or Herodotus, or Gregory of Tours, or Jules Michelet, or Edward Gibbon, or the person who wrote an early Frankish charter or a diarist during the Hamburg cholera outbreak.  Note though, that I have not taken J’s injunction to historicise him; I have simply analysed the coherence of his text, not least because, as I said at the start, attempts to historicise him have ironically been rejected as the simple products of the critics’ positioning (which again turns the book’s argument inside-out, if you accept its claim that we can meaningfully evaluate historians’ accounts, and understand the world, on the basis of historicising their authors).  Further, if one accepts that historians are imprisoned in language then historicising implies a world outside language (yet a third self-contradiction inherent in the injunction).

If the argument on pp.1-82 (leaving aside the earlier reference to historicising on p.30) is correct, historicising is impossible and the injunction on p.82 is entirely fatuous and, if the instruction to ‘always historicise’ is to be taken seriously, then the book’s entire argument up to p.82 is pointless.  So we must conclude that Re-thinking History is, after all, a Cretan Paradox, and on a grand scale.  If we could be sure that it was deliberate it would be a literary achievement worthy of considerable respect and/or a hoax which worked better than J could have ever have imagined.  Too well, perhaps, as J has been compelled to maintain the pretence, keep playing the role, for the subsequent quarter-century.

My conclusion[10], then, is that this is a book which is entirely incoherent and self-contradictory.  The proposal it makes for dealing with the problems of historical accounts flatly (and completely) contradicts its own analysis of those problems.  You have to ask why a book this bad (as noted, to the extent of being a 90-page paradox) not only gets a place on reading lists (outside a course on ‘how not to argue’), let alone should still be in print in revised editions, having even generated its own literature.  Ironically, the most convincing argument in support of J’s claim for the theoretical/philosophical impoverishment of the historical discipline is the fact that his book was not trashed decisively as soon as it came out.


[1] In other words, we can produce all kinds of stories about the past that are entirely consistent with its traces and which fairly re-describe a past as experienced by actual people – and that matters – but those stories not only do not equal an object history (or The Past) and they were almost certainly not experienced as those stories at the time.  The stories, the linkages of events, the causation and the interpretations are ours, imprisoned in language, sometimes (perhaps usually) unconsciously.  Thus no one single story or account is or can be imposed by the past itself.  Which is ‘the true story’?  Provided they fit the available traces of the past, all of them. Or none.

[2] Theorists in other humanities have tended to look a bit askance at references to ‘postmodern’ historians, as postmodernism is a moment, not a movement, and most of the philosophers claimed to underpin it where quite clear about not being postmodernists (e.g. ‘a term I am on record … as disapproving for both philosophical and sociological reasons’ – Simon Critchley, Very Little … Almost Nothing, p.xxvii).  In a sense it is about as meaningful as calling Descartes a ‘Seventeenth-Centuryist’ philosopher.  Mostly ‘postmodernist’ is, in Critchley’s term, a traditionalist’s bogeyman (I have been accused of it often enough even though I reject the category), an empty catch-all for ‘things I don’t want to have to think about’.

[3] Entertainingly (or ironically), J seems not to realise that the work by Borges cited by Foucault was a work of fiction.

[5] The defence, I assume, would be that the fact that the book caused a furore amongst historians proves that it was dealing with a hot topic.  Maybe so.  But if I wrote a book which tore into archaeology on the basis of archaeological thinking and practice from the ‘sixties or ‘seventies, arguing that one ought to be entirely skeptical of anything that archaeologists said, or their ability to say ‘reliable’ things about the past, and that any reading of archaeology was ‘logically’ as good as any other, and this books sold thousands of copies and made a big splash, I think it would be fairly safe to assume that it too would cause a furore.  It’s the first (f)law of citation indices: if you want to get lots of citations write something terrible.  In any case, this critique takes the text entirely on its own terms and for the most part eschews external referents.

[6] Ask yourself on what basis J claims to be able to judge the alleged brilliance of the ‘brilliant’ works of history supposedly silenced by the dominant discourse. A distinction between an object past and historians’ writings is also implied in the phrase ‘the past can sustain countless narratives’ (p.22).

[7] Anyone who has ever attended a university history departmental meeting will be especially interested by the idea that academic historians can agree on any important (or even unimportant) topic with anything like unanimity, but I digress again.

[8] In any case, the really tricky issue for non-relativist, politically-engaged historians to confront is not what one does with holocaust-deniers, which easy enough, so much as how one deals, within historical practice, with holocaust-approvers.

[9] I’m not, incidentally, always clear from the text on how J understands ideology (according to Terry Eagleton seems to the only answer it provides), but there we are.

[10] I had initially thought of discussing a range of other problems, external to the text itself, such as whether the ideas of Foucault, Derrida etc. are being used in any way ‘canonically’ or, if they are, whether they support the argument being made, or are consistent with each other, or whether the analysis of historical discourse and its university-based ‘guardians’ stacks up, and so on, but in the end it seemed unnecessary.  Suffice it to say that they are there.

Wednesday, 5 October 2016

The Value of a 'Knowledge of History' in Post-Brexit Britain

The Home Secretary, Amber Rudd, has announced that the Conservative government of the UK will (or is at least considering whether to) introduce legislation to compel firms to produce lists of foreign employees.  On this basis it can - allegedly - shame them for not employing enough British people.

Lists of 'foreigners'.  To be distinguished from those people who happened to be born in the contingently-defined area of the earth's surface now recognised as comprising the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland.  That, after all, is fundamentally how you define a nation in the modern world.

Brexit secretary Liam Fox wants to differentiate between immigrants who arrive “without ever having created anything” and those who -presumably - have created 'something'.

I confess that I find all this terrifying. 

Some people dismiss it as simple pandering to racist elements, things that could never be made workable.  I am not so sanguine about that.  What I am perhaps too sanguine about is that I steadily refuse to believe that everyone who voted for Brexit really thought that it would lead to this or approves of it.  I don't even believe that all Tories approve of this, and indeed Anna Soubry evidently spoke to another fringe group at the same time as Fox was speaking, arguing that politicians had a responsibility to counter, rather than to fuel anti-immigrant feeling when it arose.

More than a few people have pointed out that compiling lists differentiating 'foreign workers' from people with UK citizenship ought to ring some serious alarm bells.  James O'Brien at LBC eloquently pointed out that it has more than a slight ring of Mein Kampf about it (you can possibly find the clip here).  Rudd herself apparently got very annoyed by this sort of rejoinder, claiming that she had been careful to avoid that sort of language - presumably by studiously refusing to quote Mein Kampf in the original German.  One response to the situation has been that if you aren't worried by these developments you need to read more history.

But do you?  Is that the value of a historical education?  Being able to say "Ooh, hang on, isn't that a teeny bit Third-Reich-y"?  With broad historical knowledge you could compile a long list of unsavoury regimes that have done things like this.  In the period I study, the Visigoths passed laws criminalising entire communities who failed to grass up any unconverted Jews in their midst. And so on.

But then so what?

The political come-back to all that is to claim that that is just hysterical.  How can you call us Nazis?  What do we see now in the US if not the fact that the general ubiquity of accusations of Nazism (Goodwin's Law) since 1945 has robbed them of any efficaciousness even when staring something like the real thing right in the face? One problem in political dialogue is that, somehow, accusations from the right of being 'just like Stalin/the Soviet Union' have managed to retain some sort of effectiveness while appeals to similarities with the Nazis are (except on the Far Right, where it is in any case a source of pride) seen as over-the-top.  Has the unique, unimaginable awfulness of the Nazis taken them entirely out of the realms of discourse?  Are they now linked solely to one historically-specific, unrepeatable signifier, with no content in the realm of the imaginary?

In any case, as I will argue in Why History Doesn't Matter, the simple deployment of 'warnings from the past' is very easily countered by any politician worth their salt.  The politician will say that it is an over-reaction; the politician will claim it is a misplaced analogy, for reasons A-Z; the politician will thank the historians but assure them and the voters that policies will be in place to prevent that, or will say that, by learning from the past they will ensure such mistakes do not happen again.

And do you actually need to have amassed that knowledge via a historical education to see that this is a pretty terrifying development?  I don't think so.  Surely, all you need is a minimally-developed sense of basic humanity and power of imagination.  It would be in that sphere that I would claim lies the value of a real historical education.  The critical investigation of what you are told, to be sure, but also the exercises in imagination necessary to conceive of other world views, held by other actual people, and the capacity to be able to listen to those views and trying to understand them - critically of course, and without refusing judgement in the final analysis. You cannot really be critical of something until you have tried to understand it.  The act of understanding and explaining in my experience inevitably dilutes senses of 'otherness'.

That makes it very difficult to write off other human beings simply by attaching to them a set of labels provided by a governing party.

That's how we need to think historically.

My experience of the study of History leads me to conclude that we need to oppose Theresa May, Amber Rudd, Liam Fox and the rest, not because their policies look a bit like those of the Nazis but because by any even entry-level standards of humanity they're just not right.